Being a Catholic country, Father’s Day is Italy is celebrated on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph. The feast is associated with a number sweet and savory dishes, but none more so perhaps than the fancy, sweet version of zeppole usually called, appropriately enough, zeppole di san Giuseppe. Romans make their own homier version of this treat that they call bignè di san Giuseppe. Sweet zeppole are made with a cooked dough enriched with butter and eggs, formed into little balls and deep fried and, more often than not, filled with crema pasticcera or pastry cream. While savory zeppole have a firm, pizza-like consistency, these sweet bignè are soft and fluffy. It is funny to think that the typical Father’s Day dish in Italy is not some he-man brontosaurus burger but, well… a cream puff!
For a plateful
- 250ml water
- 100g butter
- A pinch of salt
- 125g flour (pastry flour or all-purpose)
- Sugar (at least a spoonful, more to taste)
- 4 eggs (or 2 whole eggs and 2 yolks)
- Grated lemon zest (or a drop of limoncello) (optional)
For frying: vegetable oil, olive oil and/or lard
- Confectioner’s sugar
- 1 cup or more of pastry cream (optional: see Notes)
Bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a simmer. Off heat, add all of the flour and whisk vigorously until the flour is well incorporated. Put the pot back on the heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture breaks away from the sides of the pot and adheres to itself to form a ball-like mass. (This should be very quick and take only a few seconds.)
Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool off a bit. Then add the eggs, one by one, mixing well with a wooden spoon until each is well incorporated into the dough. Let the dough cool completely. It will be quite sticky and soft.
To fry your bignè, take two spoons and scoop up a spoonful of the dough with one of them. Then, passing the dough from one spoon to another, form a roundish little dough. (NB: It will be close to impossible to make perfectly round sphere with this wet dough.) Then flick your dough ball into the fat. Then proceed with the rest of the dough, until your skillet is filled (but not too crowded) with little bignè.
The fat should be only moderately hot at first. The dough balls will puff up almost as soon as they hit the oil. Nudge them gently as they fry. They will rotate very easily. When they have all lost their raw look and are nice and puffy, raise the heat and continue frying over high heat until the bignè are all golden brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon to a platter lined with paper towels or a baking grid to drain and cool. Repeat until you’ve used up all your dough.
If you have more dough to fry, remove the skillet to a cold burner to let it cool off a bit. (If you add your next batch to oil immediately, the oil will be too hot and the bignè will brown before they have a chance to puff up properly.) After a minute or two, you can add your next batch of bignè into the oil off heat, the oil will still be hot enough to start them cooking. Then put the skillet back on the flame and continue as for the previous batch.
After all your bignè are done, let them cool off completely. At this point, you can simply sprinkle them with powdered sugar and serve. Or, for a richer version, you can fill them first with crema pasticcera (see Notes). The easiest and best way to do this is to use a pastry syringe to inject the cream right into the center of each bignè, but if you don’t have one—and I don’t—then you can make do by slitting one side (the ugliest one) with a paring knife, very gingerly opening the resulting slit up a bit to reveal the insides of the bignè, and inserting a small spoonful of the cream. You can do this with a small spoon or a pastry bag. (Since I don’t have a pastry bag, either, I use a makeshift one using a plastic sandwich bag with one corner cut off.) Place the bignè on your serving platter slit-side down, and continue with the others.
Crema pasticcera, or pastry cream, is simply hot milk, usually flavored with some vanilla bean, thickened with egg yolks creamed together with sugar. These days, however, it is not unusual to use a bit of flour or cornstarch to do some of the thickening. This reduces the number of egg yolks you need and making the whole mixture more stable and less prone to curdling, at the cost of some richness. An illustrated, step-by-step recipe for the traditional version can be found here.
Most modern recipes for bignè di san Giuseppe will call for frying these bignè in olio di semi or vegetable oil. Older recipes use olive oil and even older ones lard. Personally, I use mostly canola oil mixed with some olive oil for flavor. For a (slightly) lighter version, bignè di san Giuseppe can also be made in the oven rather than fried, on lined cookie shett placed in a moderate oven (180°C/350°F) for about 20-30 minutes, or until golden brown.
The more commonly found zeppole di san Giuseppe are made with essentially the same components put together in more elaborate way than these. The dough is formed into a kind of doughnut-like receptacle using a fluted pastry bag, deep-fried (or baked). They are then sprinkled with powdered sugar, the hole in the middle is filled with pastry cream (again with a fluted pastry bag) and topped with a bitter cherry or other candied berry. The resulting pastry looks like this: